Posted Dec 23 2009 9:01AM
The early contender for coach of the year doesn't know if he'll be coaching next year.
Well, chances are pretty good that Mike Woodson will draw a check from somebody somewhere in 2010 and beyond. It just might not be in Atlanta. As good as the Hawks have been this season, showing tremendous growth and scoring some fairly impressive KO victories, Woodson is working without a safety net. Although he owns the longest coaching tenure with one team in the Eastern Conference at six years, this is the last year of his deal and nothing's on the table. Hawks general manager Rick Sund is taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding if Woodson is worth an extension.
Neither is willing to discus Woodson's status, at least not publicly. You ask Woodson, you get "I'd rather not talk about my situation," but clearly, not only does Woodson want to stay in Atlanta, he thinks he has deserved the right to stay.
One of his pals in the coaching biz said: "What else does he have to prove?"
It does seem like a strange situation for Woodson, who heads our list of best coaching performances so far in 2009-10. Usually, teams avoid any situation where a coach is perceived to be a lame duck, although in Woodson's case, that's a big stretch. His job is hardly in jeopardy. And if nothing else, he's setting himself for a big financial score this summer. As coaching free agents go, he could be the LeBron James of the market, especially if the Hawks reach the NBA Finals, which isn't a silly notion.
It's been a long, strange trip for Woodson ever since he left the Larry Brown nest and joined the Hawks. He won 13 games his first season, then 26, then 30. By season four, the Hawks GM at the time, Billy Knight, wanted to fire Woodson. Knight ended up getting fired himself by the new ownership group. Sund took over and gave Woodson a two-year deal, not a full vote of confidence, but not a dismissal, either.
Well, since then, Woodson won 47 games and then a round in the playoffs with an injured team. The young Hawks have obviously grown and matured on his watch. And they're among the top 5 or 6 teams in basketball, with impressive wins against the Celtics, Jazz, Mavericks and Blazers. Woodson must be doing something right.
What's the reason to delay an extension? Well, there's the Dick Jauron lesson. The Buffalo Bills were so smitten by his 5-1 start last season they gave him a 3-year extension on the spot. Then the Bills finished out 2-8. Because of the contract, they were stuck with a coach they eventually fired this season when the losing continued. Maybe some teams can simply write off the financial headaches of letting coaches go with years and millions of dollars left on their contract, but not the Hawks.
Besides, the Hawks aren't under any pressure to act right this minute. Conducting negotiations with a coach during the season could turn into a distraction. Evidently the Hawks want to see what Woodson's team does in the spring before they make a long-term commitment. And suppose Woodson takes another job, you ask? Well, there'd be no shortage of coaches willing to take over a good, young Atlanta team. So the Hawks own the leverage here.
Right now anyway, Woodson and the Hawks are good for one another and most likely they'll realize it next summer when his contract is up. A coach of the year award would only strengthen the relationship and seal the deal.
Woodson's hardly the only coach in the running for that honor, however.
Alvin Gentry, Suns
The Terry Porter experiment was a disaster and the Suns could've saved themselves the headache had they simply elevated Gentry instead. Better late than never, though, and the Suns are one of the bigger surprises this season under Gentry, a former top assistant to Mike D'Anton and like Woodson, also from the Larry Brown coaching tree. He has an obviously good relationship with Steve Nash, or else Gentry wouldn't be the coach. He found a way to squeeze something out of Channing Frye and the Suns' defense, while hardly the best, is averaging two fewer points a game than last year.
Rick Adelman, Rockets
No Yao Ming, and essentially no T-Mac, but no problem so far for the Rockets, who are tough to beat yet playing without a big-time star. That's not such a surprise, considering the guy on the bench. What coaches, other than Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, have been more consistent this decade than Adelman? He knows how to handle stars and 12th men as well as anybody. He connected with Ron Artest; that's all you need to know. Strange but true: Sam Mitchell and Avery Johnson have more coach of the year awards than Adelman.
Scott Brooks, Thunder
Among the up-and-comers, Brooks is someone to watch. One of the hardest things for a coach is getting a young team to play defense. That's what's happening in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder allow less than 96 points and 45 percent shooting a game, among the best in basketball. Along with Kevin Durant, defense is keeping them competitive and the fans interested.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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